Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Thomas Malthus

Having for years heard the word "Malthusian" used to describe a gloomy future for mankind, I decided to look into the ideas of Thomas Malthus. He is best known for An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, With Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers, which was first published in 1798. The crux of his argument is that, while population grows geometrically, food supplies grow arithmetically, resulting inevitably in overpopulation and famine. War and disease may temporarily decrease the population, but lower reproductive rates are recommended. To that end, Malthus proposed the exercise of chastity.

At the time of its writing, Malthus's outlook was credible, because modern agriculture had not yet come into existence, oil was not used in internal combustion engines, and famines occurred regularly. He wrote the essay to counter the then-popular optimism about human nature that marked the beginning of Romanticism, which was inspired in part by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom his father admired. Malthus falls well within the tradition of British empiricism, though by vocation he was a clergyman. In his travels he noticed poor and suffering people in rural areas, a far cry from the bucolic idylls of Rousseau. Moreover, he had a mathematical bent and attempted to compile actual data. Thus, although he lacked significant data and did not adopt a proper scientific method, he represented the then-current standards in the proto-fields of demography and economics.

The Essay was controversial from the start, and was soon attacked by the Lake Poets, who at that time were writing rhapsodic poems about Tintern Abbey and similar places, extolling the virtues of man in harmony with nature. Some saw in Malthus wealthy elitism seeking to suppress the lower classes by reducing their numbers. Eventually economics came to be known as "the dismal science," based on Thomas Carlyle's assessment of Malthus. Nevertheless, Malthus appealed to scientific thinkers, and Charles Darwin was inspired by him. Malthus later came under attack when his ideas were unfairly tied to eugenics and social Darwinism. Hitler is said to have read Malthus and found in him a justification for the elimination of Jews. In the present day, Malthus has become popular among environmentalists, who have extended Malthus's cautions from population growth to anthropogenic climate change.

It is a little difficult so see why Malthus has received so much attention over the last two centuries. Although his ideas aren't particularly startling today, they represent an opposite pole to the optimism about human potential that has been going strong ever since the Enlightenment. Malthus comes across as an empirical party pooper even though his work has been superseded by modern science and may just as well be ignored. In a way he has been absorbed by the culture wars between conservatives who believe that all problems can best be solved by free markets and scientifically literate liberals who are concerned about the consequences of our protracted neglect of the environment. While he is hardly recognizable as a scientist in the modern sense, Malthus stands for science and reason over faith and dogma.

Some critics of Malthus say that he clearly was wrong in that agricultural output has in fact kept up with population growth. This is a facile argument, because when you factor in all of the negative impacts that Homo sapiens has had on the environment over the last two hundred years, the net result - the possibility of human extinction - parallels the possibility of death by starvation. In sum, Malthus looks like a run-of-the-mill empiricist who has become a straw man for capitalist ideologues and religious fundamentalists to attack.

Within the realm of the history of ideas, Malthus deserves credit for portraying us as a natural phenomenon that needs some controls simply to ensure its continuation. In this sense I am Malthusian. Although I often favor the works of artists and writers - Confessions, by Rousseau, for example - over the works of scientists, as a practical matter ignoring science is likely to be a big mistake for those who live long enough to see their delusions come unraveled.

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